In this article, I argue that paying the Living Wage should be a public health priority for all publicly funded bodies.

The living wage is a carefully calculated wage designed to provide employees with a minimum standard of living.  Currently it is set at £7.65 per hour (£8.80 in London), compared to the minimum wage of £6.31 per hour.  Currently some 4.8 million people, 20% of the working population, work for less than the living wage.

We know that the living wage is good for employers, reducing absenteeism by 25%, and turnover of contractors falling from 4% to 1%. It is also eminently realistic and achievable, indeed over 100 Local Authorities have a living wage policy already. What is less discussed, however, are the large public health benefits of the living wage.

The public health argument in support of the Living Wage is clear. Professor Kate Pickett calls it “the single best action that I believe local authorities can take to reduce health inequalities”. This is because it will reduce poverty and income inequality and these are very important factors that determine the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Firstly the living wage will reduce poverty. Poverty exposes people to health threats such as poor housing and low quality food. Poverty also causes psychological and social stress, which results in poorer mental and physical wellbeing. Indeed, workers on the living wage report higher levels of mental wellbeing than those below the living wage. Finally, poverty makes it practically and psychologically more difficult to adopt healthy behaviours, resulting in people smoking more, eating less healthily and doing less exercise. Through these mechanisms poverty causes the UK’s shocking levels of health inequalities. For instance women in Tower Hamlets where I work can expect to be healthy for 54.1 years, whereas women in Richmond can expect to be healthy for 72.1 years.

Secondly, the living wage will reduce income inequality. Income inequality is one of the most toxic social determinants of health. Income inequality harms people on low incomes because it intensifies their feeling of low social status. Biologists and epidemiologists have shown how this results in high levels of stress, which increases cardiovascular disease and mental illness.

Most interesting of all, income inequality harms not only the health of those on low incomes, but also the health of the whole population, including the rich. Studies again and again confirm that countries that are more equal are healthier. This is partly because there is less social stress in equal societies but also because equal societies make a whole series of better collective decisions. Being healthy requires collective decisions on provision of healthcare, on acceptable levels of air pollution, on provision of green parks and good cycle lanes. People can only be healthy if we all decided to be healthy together, and that only happens in equal societies. By moving towards a more equal society research has shown that we can expect health gains from lower cardiovascular disease, obesity, drug dependency, mental illness, suicides and homicides, childhood wellbeing and infant mortality.

In summary, public bodies paying the living wage will not solve health inequalities. However it is a simple and achievable step towards equality. There will be large health benefits through reducing poverty and income inequality, enabling people to live healthier, less stressful lives, and enabling us all to make healthier collective decisions.

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4 Comments

  1. Tony Jewell says:

    Good points made about this as a contribution to reducing poverty and moving towards a fairer (not equal) society.

  2. The only way to maintain a living wage is to get the Tories out

  3. Mervyn Hyde says:

    There is an odd conception that says a living wage is between £7 & £8, a real living wage is around the £500 a week mark on a 40hr week.

    That should be in the region of £12.5 per hour.

    The simple deduction that people should arrive at, is that, if employers can’t afford to pay those rates of pay, then we need to look elsewhere for employment.

    Namely the state.

    It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Productivity gains have increased exponentially since the seventies, and the rich are getting richer at the expense of the rest of us, in addition to the fact that wages are falling not rising.

    Before I retired, I worked for a small manufacturing company that produced high quality hydraulic cylinders, most of the people working on the shop floor were claiming Working tax credit, or whatever benefit that subsidised employers for paying low wages. In other words they had their wages topped up by the government.

    This company was a private company with offshore bank accounts and so it’s profitability could not be properly ascertained. Needles to say that whenever it payed wage rises, they were below inflation.

    There was no union representation therefore the wage levels were the lowest that I had ever worked for, fortunately for me, I received a pension from my previous job and so it did not matter to me, but those workers that have since had those benefits cut by the Tories must now be really hurting and work longer hours to make ends meet.

    The problem facing people is that the capitalist system is not working for them, and are not thinking for themselves. After the last war working people realised that the jam tomorrow promises were wearing a bit thin and that they wanted a new society. Labour came to power with that promise and started to transform society. Sadly since the seventies Labour along with all the other Neo-Liberal parties have pursued the interests of capitalists rather than people and we are back to where we started in the 20s and 30s.

    The problems with modern day society is that the system is taking away every advantage gained since the last war. People need to understand that we had periods of growth unheard of before, between the 50s and 70s due in fact to our control of the economy based on the needs of people rather than Market Forces ideology.

    The other fact that people do not recognise is that we have the money to do whatever we desire in government, we have the money what we do not have is a democratic government willing to improve ordinary peoples lives, but are working to protect the interest of the Financial sector and capitalism.

    In short, The deficit is a lie and can be payed for with the stroke of a pen, we can pay for all our public services including pensions and anything the government wishes to fund. We can never go broke as a country and meet any liability, because we have our own sovereign currency, which we can spend as the Bank of England is the issuer of that currency, we are not Greece.

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